It has long been an ambition of mine to have a guest post by Kathryn Warner on the Auramala Project site. Kathryn is an inspiration and a blessing to absolutely anyone who is curious about Edward II and his times -let alone someone, like me, who has spent the last few years concentrating on said monarch for much of his spare time. Readers will have noticed by now that Auramala Project members like to have something tasty on the table when going about historical sleuthing, and something sparkling and red in their goblets, too. That’s why I asked Kathryn if she would tell us more about King Edward II’s own tastes in food and drink, and how he consumed them. In no time at all Kathryn put together this lovely post. As we all dig into our own banquets over the festive season, we can now imagine how Edward II did so, too. Thank you, Kathryn, for this festive-spirited post!
Today I’ll be taking a look at the kind of food King Edward II of England (reigned 1307 to 1327) ate, the kind of drink he was used to, and what we know about the eating habits and ceremonies of his household.
The king was a huge fan of seafood and fish. In 1326, he thanked one of his household purchasers for bringing him crabs and prawns and told the man that nothing had been so much to his taste for a long time. In 1325 when he was near the ports of Dover and Sandwich in Kent, large quantities of fish and seafood were bought for him: crabs, bream, sea bass, whiting, codling, sole, mullets, and more. Eels appear also to have been to his taste and were often purchased for the royal household. Edward spent Christmas 1322 in York, and ate porpoise, sturgeon, swans, peacocks, herons, pigeons, venison and wild boar during the feast, among much else.
According to Edward II’s Household Ordinance of 1318 – the second oldest in existence in England – the king should have three squires serving him at his table: one to keep watch over and taste his food, one to “carve before the king” and one to serve him from his cup. The same Ordinance stated that the king, the queen and any magnates staying in the royal household should have four courses and the king’s household three, except for ‘boys’ (garsons) who would have only two. At the time of the Great Famine in 1315, Edward had issued a proclamation “limiting the number of courses at the tables of lords” on account of the “excessive and abundant portions of food” they were accustomed to. Evidently there was a great deal of ceremony surrounding the king’s dining: his chamber journals record payments of between twenty and a hundred shillings made to various members of his staff “for what he did in the hall when the king ate.” The precise nature of this ceremony is not made clear, however.
All members of the king’s household were entitled (by the Household Ordinance of 1318 and, presumably, custom) to a gallon of ale per day, ale being then the usual daily drink for everyone, in the way that we drink water or juice or cola. A gallon of ale in England in 1325 cost one pence, or sometimes one and a half pence. A few references are also made in the king’s accounts to moust, unfermented wine, and surely Edward also enjoyed wine from Gascony, the area of south-west France he had inherited from his father and ultimately his great-great-grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine. As well as ale, the king’s household servants were also entitled to a messe de gros, literally a ‘large dish’, meaning a serving of whatever meat had been prepared that day. Servants of the rank of valet and higher were also entitled to a serving of roast meat, while the lower ranks only received the boiled kind. A messe de gros had to be shared among two, three or four people, except for extremely important people like Edward II himself.
Members of Edward II’s household included a ‘squire fruiterer for the king’s mouth’, a serving-man of the cuphouse, a serving-man of the pitcher-house, and two serving-men of the bakehouse. Of the latter two, one would attend to the oven and the other to the mill. There were also five serving-men of the kitchen, “of whom one will be usher and will fetch, by the orders of his masters, from the great larder, everything, the meat and fish which will be dispensed in the king’s chamber, bread, wine and ale from the pantry and butlery, and spices from the spicery by the commands and ordinances of his masters. And another valet will be ewerer, who will receive the vessels of the said kitchen by indenture with the official in charge of the scullery, and will guard them both when travelling and resting [i.e., when the household stayed in one place]. And he will cook ‘the great meat’ (la grosse chare) and prepare the first course, fish as well as meat. And another valet will be potager, who will make the potages for the king’s chamber, and all the suets which will be for his table. And two other valets will make the roasts and the other courses for the said chamber according to the orders of their masters. The which five valets will have a boy to carry their bed and to help in the kitchen.”
In March and April 1315, Edward II and his council attempted to fix the price of various basic foodstuffs, in an attempt to alleviate the misery of his starving subjects during the Great Famine. (These regulations failed completely and were revoked at the Lincoln parliament a few months later.) Here are some of the fixed prices of 1315: a “fat sheep” should cost no more than twenty pence if unshorn and fourteen pence if shorn; an ox not fed with corn a maximum of sixteen shillings, or twenty-four shillings if fed with corn and fattened; a live fat cow, twelve shillings; a fat chicken, one and a half pence; twenty-four eggs, one pence. On one day in June 1319, the household of Edward II’s niece Elizabeth de Burgh and her husband Roger Damory – at least a few dozen people – consumed a little over a pound’s worth of food, including half a carcass of salt beef, a side of bacon, half a pig, some mutton, forty herrings, half a salmon, two salt stockfish, eels, two ducks, six hens and 150 eggs. In November and December 1311, Edward II’s queen Isabella of France spent five pounds on 5000 ‘various fruits’ for herself and her household, including 1000 pears and 300 apples. The following May, she bought another 5500 apples, at a cost of fifty-five shillings. Edward II’s household, somewhere in the region of 500 people, necessitated a lavish expenditure on food and drink: the accounts for his ninth regnal year, 8 July 1315 to 7 July 1316, show that he spent £887 on food and£1160 on wine (and also over £3000 on New Year gifts, £627 on clothes, £334 on entertainment and £4644 on other “necessities”).
On the general topic of food in medieval England, see Food and Feast in Medieval England by Peter Hammond, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer, and The Great Household in Late Medieval England by C.M. Woolgar.